A Good Dog Knows What To Do
Smithsonian, October 1999

In competition, workaholic Border collies fetch, pen and shed to prove they have the right stuff.

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ONE ON THE OUTRUN," Mark Banham says.  Banham is a young English judge, imported from far-off Surrey to keep evenhanded track of the trial. "One on the lift," he says. Pause. "Two on the lift." Pause. Then, "Oh, dear! Three on the lift." Longish pause. "And one on the fetch."

These are lost points, being subtracted from the 100 points each dog and handler team begins with. Crouched beside him, Mark's wife, Carolyn, jots them down as he calls them out. Sometimes the numbers come thick and fast. It is a windy morning at Seclusival, a series of sheepdog trials in Shipman, Virginia, and because of the wind, contestants say, the sheep are flighty. I am learning why any score over 80 is an achievement, and why, perhaps to their peril, Border collies have lately become such celebrities.

The judge's hut is about the size of three phone booths, with a pointed roof and a doghouse doorway that reminds Banham of a sentry box at Buckingham Palace. Framed by the door, aa blizzard of twittering whistles broad green field swoops down and away, then rises toward a distant fringe of trees. All around this ravishing expanse of Virginia countryside, a succession of smallish black­and-white dogs has been purposefully annoying trios of sheep while, one after another, grown men and women subject them to a blizzard of twittering whistles and loud shouts.

The whistles are weird and indecipherable. Like most people these days who have seen Babe or caught a sheepdog trial segment on TV, I have a slight grip on a few words in sheepdog­speak, starting with the two flanking commands, "Away to me" (the dog swings counterclockwise to head off the sheep) and "Come bye" (clockwise reverse). The words we hear most right now, though, are "Lie Down! Lie DOWN! LIE DOWN!" In the eyes of sheep, we are told, dogs are like the wolves they evolved from. A dog flashing toward sheep, even quite far off, makes them nervous. If it comes on too fast or gets too close, the sheep may run out of control; a "Lie Down!" temporarily turns off the pressure.

The stages of the course that dogs and handlers are trying to make the sheep follow are, in order: outrun, lift, fetch, drive (including cross drive and return) and, finally, the twin killers known as pen and shed. Both the latter must be negotiated right under the eye of judge and spectators; failure at either can swiftly dash competitive hope. The prescribed route is in the shape of an arrow. Its shaft, roughly 1,000 feet long, stretches from a peg near the far-off trees where dog and sheep first meet and the lift (setting the sheep in motion) takes place, straight along what is known as the fetch line to the handler and judge.

It looks simple enough. Just send old Shep up there to bring down the sheep. Watched at a distance, the repetitive doings on the field at first produce an effect not unlike being exposed to the same home movie over and over again. Only the pen and shed parts of the course seem close up and personal tense and dramatic freeze-framesenough to provide much sense of difficulty. Pen produces those tense and dramatic freeze-frames, with sheep, dog and handler teetering in a will-they-or­won't-they balance, the sheep at left, dithering outside the tiny pen, the handler next, holding its door open invitingly, and the dog crouched at right, glaring, motionless, ready to explode . As to shed, some zillions of children and parents who saw Babe know it involves separating out one or more sheep from the rest; they may remember Pig doing this by saying mildly, "If the three ladies with collars would kindly walk out of the ring, I'd be very much obliged."

Long before the sheep reach the pen, however, the pitfalls of this obstacle course appear. Sheep are fractious prey animals. Only partly mesmerized by the dog's wolflike aura, they can get way out of control at any point in each nine-minute run. The handler watches the sheep and the dog. The dog watches the sheep - and listens to the handler. Speed is so much of the essence that, with a dog often working 700 or more feet away, the six- or seven-tenths of a second it takes a whistled command to reach a dog can be decisive. Decisions - flank left, flank right, slow, stop, come on - are commanded and countermanded in fractions of a second. They are made by the handler, but ratified and then executed by the dog in an exquisite complexity, with the handler playing god but the dog still capable of free will.

It involves one of the world's most intricate working collaborations between human and beast. A top handler compared the reactive speed required of him during the run to fending off surprise attacks in a computer game. Many handlers insist that they concentrate so hard that if a gun "If he'd just shut up ..." went off they would not hear it. Still, compared with the dogs they have it easy. Concentrating like fury on the sheep, often at a dead run, dogs have to unscramble a flurry of commands (scores of different yells and whistles), then do what's called for or decide against. As a spectator, it is hard not to imagine that the dogs are growling, "If he'd just shut up, I could do my job."

As Mark Banham pushes the start button on the official time clock, the next dog leaves his handler's side and rockets into his outrun. Swinging into a wide, looping curve so as not to scare the distant sheep, and accelerating uphill like a little black-and-white fighter plane on emergency war power, he covers the equivalent of a 440-yard dash in 40 seconds, then slows to a catlike stalk on the far side of the sheep, pads forward and, with no signals from his handler, smoothly stirs them into motion. This is the lift, and like a marriage, if it doesn't begin well, look out! (Sheep are valuable, for wool and meat, so this "should be done gently and carefully," a handler tells me, "as if the ewes were all pregnant and you have to make a living off the lambs.")

In a second, the sheep are striding downhill toward us three abreast and looking like noble beasts. Discreetly behind and to the left, the dog paces right along with them. Banham lets out an approving "Ah." On the fetch, dog and sheep are supposed to move in a straight line, all at the same flowing speed. For an instant the sheep veer just enough to the left so we can glimpse their flanks, then, under the dog's spell, quickly come back on course. "One," says Banham.

Reaching the handler, who stands at a stake 100 feet in front of us, they make a counterclockwise turn and head off at a 45-degree angle for the first of two gates. "One," says Banham. And again, "One." They have swung a hair too wide, and then begin to drift markedly off course. Mouth open, tongue lolling like a wolf's in a cartoon, the dog pelts desperately past our door, swinging wide so as not to push them farther out of line, heads them, and stops dead. They are back on course, but too late. 'Two," Banham says.

This is still a pretty good run. But trouble starts as soon as they make it through one gate and into the cross drive, a lateral run in front of judge and spectators in what is supposed to be a straight line to the next gate.  Before the trial, I know, Banham sent his wife out onto the field, to pace a direct line between the gates while he, like a forward observer in the artillery, took note of a series of small tufts or dark patches of grass exactly located on the route the sheep should follow. To my eye they're doing fine. "One," says Banham. A short time later it is two more, as the sheep swerve upward. "He was way below," Banham explains. "And then he corrected to way above." Having no license to say anything, I find that I've emitted a perplexed "Huh?"

"You have to leave room for perfection," he explains.

Banham has a point, of course. This is the open, or top, class of a major sheepdog trial. Winners will get a big leg up toward qualifying for the National Sheepdog Trial Finals this fall in Middletown, Virginia. More than a hundred dogs and their handlers are on hand, a score both eminent and "You've gotta know when to flow 'em ..."dangerous, among them North Carolinian Kent Kuykendall and his dog Bill, and Lyle Boyer, here from Michigan with her dog Cap. The hands-down favorite is Alasdair MacRae and his famous bitch, Nan. Twice they have won the National Finals together. MacRae migrated from Scotland to Virginia four years ago to judge trials, raise and sell Border collies and sheep, and give clinics and seminars in dog handling all over the United States and Canada. He is also renowned for his sheepdog­trial version of Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler," with its rousing chorus: "You've gotta know when to flow 'em, know when to slow 'em, know when to flank your dog, and know when to stop."

Another entrant is Donald McCaig, who in Nop's Trials and Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men has written about the Border collie better than anyone alive. "Instead of dogs pushing sheep around," McCaig tells me, "think of it as sheep trying to escape." Indeed, steadily watching sheep frustrate dogs and humans has opened the door a crack on what is, for me, sensitive, but ... unforgiving anyway, a whole new concept: the psychology of sheep. Being married to a pretty vegetarian while still harboring a yen for the occasional rack of lamb, I usually try to avoid the subject of sheep entirely. But today, from all sides, I am getting the strong suggestion that sheep are complex, sensitive, even fascinating. The least admiring comment I've heard about them went as follows: "Sheep do a lot of dumb things, but they're real smart."

Almost all the top sheep-trial handlers keep sheep, and many are farmers who need Border collies, because you can't begin to make a living out of sheep without a dog. But the ability to interpret the prey-animal quirks and phobias of sheep, to read their body signals, it appears, is what separates OK dogs and handlers from the handful of greats. This trial takes place at and gets its name from Seclusival, a 200-year-old farm with 400 sheep that belongs to Barbara and Steuart Ligon. Barbara is the trial's host and presiding officer, as well as one of the best dog handlers and trainers in the country. "Sheep," she tells me, "will never forgive a dog that rushes them too much." Sheep forgive? Moreover, she goes on, "some dogs put sheep into a snit just by being around; others can just naturally settle sheep down. It's a great gift."

It also appears that, surrogate wolves or not, some Border collies impress sheep as so lacking in conviction that they will simply drive the dog out of the field.

"That pseudo-wolf is hustling
me ..."
I have toyed with the notion of a silly ewe-are-there interior monologue. Something like: "I won't go in that pen! Whenever those wolves get us in a box, the men stick needles in us. Shear off our coats. Or take our babies to make lamb chops." But should that be: "I won't go in because that pseudo-wolf is hustling me?"

Clearly, it's time for a break. I quit the Banhams and the dark sentry box, reflecting that to properly understand these trials you'd need some kind of three-way telepathic circuit, broadcasting in simultaneous translation not only dog and sheep talk but a decoded version of the handlers' whistles as well. As spectator sports, baseball and football are pretty easy to empathize with, even for duffers. Tennis, too. After lengthy interviews with Clark Graebner and Arthur Ashe, John Mcphee in Levels of the Game unforgettably recreated a tennis match from inside both players' heads. But in a sheepdog trial, representatives of three separate species are subliminally collaborating - and two of them don't speak English.

Up on the sunny spectator's ridge behind the judge's hut, lunch can be had and the general scene is cheering. People have come from as far away as Michigan and Montreal and Florida, borne in an array of dog-laden vehicles, from fancy, gigantic trailers to battered pickups, sport utility vehicles and what one contestant referred to as "Motel Subaru." Dress of the day is work clothes, billed hats and boots. For lunch, you can gulp beans or hotdogs or chili with Coke or coffee, followed by doughnuts or brownies. The only shelter from a bright spring sun is two big, floppy tent tops, the only seating a couple of dozen folding chairs, many with proprietary names scrawled on the back.

There are Border collies everywhere. Big dogs doze in their crates, sprawl around in the shade of trucks and trailers, or sit behind the wheel, with windows open, as if driving. A few puppies try to shake the life out of one of the scores of caps, labeled 'JOY," handed out by the eponymous dog food company that has helped finance the running of these trials.

Among sheep and Border collie people, it turns out that whether you're rich or poor, librarian, geneticist, doctor, lawyer, farmer or Indian chief, the custom is not to hire a fancy handler to run your dog. You do it yourself. This means that when you compete, you have to be out there with dog and sheep, as exposed as a prima donna at the Met, claiming the two of you are good enough to be there. Often raw humiliation ensues, administered by sheep, for heaven's sake, or a dog (and the watching handlers all know this) who knows the job better than you do.

Border collies are obsessive­compulsive. They are also capable of working themselves to death for their owners. Besides herding sheep, their ruling passion is to turn everything they do - even play - into work. Mine, for instance, has no sheep, but if you interrupt a backyard Frisbee session by offering a bit of dog biscuit, she spits it out contemptuously and glares bitten by the trial bugat you, demanding another throw. One way handlers discipline Border collies is to refuse them the reward of working sheep. Border collie owners are obsessive, too, especially if they've been bitten by the trial bug. Some are born to Border collies and sheep. Some come to these dogs after training other breeds. One elegant woman, after years as an avid fox hunter, even gave up horses and hounds for sheepdogs. Remembering a run with a score of 84, she says, "The thrill is brief, but there's nothing like it." Characteristically, she has never looked back.

Some get suckered in by sheer chance. "Meet our million-dollar 'free' dog," says Dal Kratzer, introducing McEwan, who was given to the family as a gift. Bitten by the training bug, the Kratzers bought Speck, from Michigan neighbor Lyle Boyer, and then Paddy. All of a sudden they had three dogs - but no sheep. Sheep need a barn. Before they knew it, they had sold their house in town and built another beside a barn. And so it went, like the Rake's Progress, only their path, they feel, led not down but up, to a blissful co-dependency somewhere near the heart of the world. For their owners, the Border collie's unquenchable thirst for work is what in drinking circles is called an enabler. The result is reciprocal obsession, and often as not, a comradeship that passes understanding.

"Tears come to my eyes just thinking of what the dogs can do," Barbara Ligon admits. "If three people tried to get three sheep into a pen by themselves, they could be out there for months." At some state fair sheep trials, young men in the crowd are sometimes invited to try just that, with lengthy, comic results.

I found myself talking to a computer expert just after his ruined run, in which during the lift all three sheep headed for Montreal. "I blew it," he groaned. "He read them right, but I "... so mad he wouldn't look at
me for three
days ..."
gave him the wrong commands." He seemed as shamed by letting down his dog as those characters in the sports stories of my youth, who missed that place kick against Yale and never recovered. Donald McCaig records a similar incident, but from the dog's point of view. McCaig's miscue so outraged his dog Pip that, riding home, "Pip was so mad he wouldn't look at me. He wouldn't meet my eyes for three days."

Over doughnuts and coffee I meet Alasdair MacRae. On their first run he and Nan had "difficult sheep." On their next they seemed bound for victory. The best score till then had been a remarkable 95 by Kent Kuykendall and Bill. But going into the shed, MacRae and Nan had only three points off, and seemed headed for a spectacular 97. In American sheepdog trials, only one of the three sheep has to be herded out of the chalk circle, leaving the other two inside. Unlike in Babe and most British trials, at Seclusival the one to be shed does not wear a collar but is simply the sheep in the rear when the shedding is tried. That seems simple enough. Sheep switch around a lot in the circle, though, with the last becoming first, and vice versa; I found I could never tell which one it was, and even some of the handlers had their dogs cut out the wrong sheep.

The shed is supposed to be primarily a canine tour de force; once it is clear which sheep is to be shed, the dog needs to go against its deep instinct to keep sheep together, instead flashing in as it has been trained to do, splitting them apart and edging the proper one out of the ring. For MacRae all went swiftly and well until that defining second. In that second Nan held back and they lost ten points. Why? I asked MacRae. "Oh," he says mildly, "she just decided against it." There is deep affection in his voice, and worry. Nan is 9 years old. Has he ever seen 100 scored? I ask. "Once." Slight pause. "I wouldn't have scored it so high myself" What was his own best? "Ninety-nine and a half" What was the half for? "Oh," he said, "a little bend." By that time, thanks to Mark Banham, I thought I knew what he was talking about.

So it was that by late Sunday, under a complicated system that rewards the best marks for each of the two days separately, and includes a combined overall score for both, MacRae came in the equivalent of third, behind Lyle Boyer and her dog Cap. The big winners, with a 95 and a 92, were Kent Kuykendall and Bill, genially described by his owner as a "big goof who loves kids."

Talking about their two successful runs, Kuykendall reflected on the paradox of human command versus canine initiative. "It's a very delicate thing," he says, "one of the most controversial questions with regard to training." Speaking of Bill, he says, "On his outrun I saw he knew where the sheep were. When he got near I saw one ewe raise its head. But Bill noticed it, too, and slowed. So I left it up to him. You let the dog do it when it's in control of the sheep. At pen I made the mistake, not Bill. He wanted to pick 'em up quick and get 'em in, but I gave him a 'stand.' The sheep paused in the mouth of the pen and we lost a point."

Some dogs need total control and reassurance. Some can be too head­strong. How does a dog disagree with a command, I wondered. "They check on you sometimes," he says. "On the cross drive they will glance over. It's like a 'What did you say?'" Kuykendall believes that training your dog to be too dependent on control kills initiative. Unstated but implicit, I think, is the view that many handlers over­command, and are harsher than they need be. Or don't train the dogs well enough, and then have to yell at them too much. "They want to please," says Kent, "just so they can have the sheep." All of a sudden, we're back to the basic paradox, or is it a mantra: "A good dog knows what to do," he says. "And also does what he's told."

It is getting on toward dusk on Sunday when the Ligons and their volunteer helpers, having totted up the scores, produce a lot of prizes and a few jokes. There are many ribbons won, as well as new folding chairs (useful for the next trial) and 25­pound bags of Joy dog food. But it is the least-commercial competitive event you could imagine. Some of the cash winners do not begin to get enough to pay for the gas it took to bring their big rigs from out of state, and even the top money is measured in hundreds of dollars. If there is a commercial advantage to winning, it is in higher stud fees for the winning dog or higher prices for its puppies.

In proud distinction from the American Kennel Club, which breeds largely to physical conformity, often producing what Border collie people describe as "the beautiful and dumb," the American Border Collie Association and its members aim at the dogge bringeth the sheepepreserving an ancient line of working dogs, notable for energy, brains and the sheer ability to get a demanding job done. ''The dogs are always good," a handler tells me, "because they're always proved. The trial itself is our breeding strategy." "The shepherd's dogge," a physician in the court of Queen Elizabeth I wrote, "either at the hearing of his master's voyce, or at the wagging and whistling in his fist, or at his shrill and hoarse hissing, bringeth the . . . straying sheepe into the self same place where his master's will and wishe is to have them." That was in 1576. For centuries and centuries before and since, shepherds' dogs have been fetching sheep down out of the hills rain or shine, seven days of the week as a matter of business and necessity, without much fanfare.

It was not until 1873, in Wales, that the first sheepdog trial on record took place. It was won by William Thompson and his dog, Tweed. It had no point-scoring system, nor time limit, I'm told, but like today's trials, it required a display of nearly all the many skills working collies need. Year after year the trials became a celebrated showcase for Border collie talents. Today the little dogs have reached considerable celebrity.

A few years back, a much-publicized study designated them as (by some measures) the smartest dogs in the world. They've turned up in Gary Larson cartoons and on TV variety shows. They're rented out to chase geese off golf courses. They dominate the world of Frisbee competition and the high-speed bark fest known as flyball. A voluminous website, "All About Border Collies" (www.bordercollie.org), put together by the United States Border Collie Club, Inc., has had more than 80,000 hits this year.  Though considerably upstaged by a pig, Border collies helped make Babe a huge hit.

Most Border collie people deplore one result of this fame, which they refer to as the "101 Dalmatians effect." After every reincarnation of that film, thousands of small children living in city apartments dragoon feckless parents into getting Dalmatian puppies. A cruel percentage of the dogs soon wind up abandoned, some left at animal shelters with little hope of adoption, some left behind at the end of summer vacation, or even dropped out of car windows. Since Babe - despite warnings by many canine organizations that these dogs aren't good pets, that they can be miserable and destructive if left at home with no training or work - groups like the National Border Collie Rescue Organization have been working overtime.

The popularity of sheepdog trials is also growing with faddish speed. Fifteen years ago there were few female handlers. Now, despite many a domestic demur, well over a third are women. A youthful competitor told me, "My husband says, 'You love that dog more than me.' I say, 'Well, he's always trying to please me.'" Fifteen years ago there were only a dozen or so qualifying trials each year; now there are at least 250, with more and more "hobby handlers" from cities and suburbs joining in.

At least two glossy publications, American Border Collie magazine and The Working Border Collie, reflect this trend. Both comment seriously on sheepdog trials, the handlers and training necessary. Both carry ads for dogs, sheep, training Ewesful Thingsclinics, books and videos on how to learn, and the artifacts of sheepdogolatry: shepherd's crooks, Border collie photographs and coverlets, the little half-moon-shaped whistles most handlers use, caps, jewelry, mugs, stickers, figurines, silver buckles. One features a department called Ewesful Things.

And what's wrong with that? I find myself wondering on the long dark drive home. From the Border collie's point of view, probably nothing, unless a lot of money begins to change hands, or standards are lowered to please crowds or sponsors. Even then, the collies won't care, as long as nobody tries to pretend that what they're up to is anything but dead serious.


Additional reading:

  • Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men: Searching Through Scotland for a Border Collie by Donald McCaig. Harper Collns, 1991
  • American Border Collie Magazine (bimonthly) 14033 Kirkwood Road, Sidney, Ohio 45365